Bud Kennedy

He was ‘thankful’ — so this chef gave away 50,000 Thanksgiving dinners

How did we ever forget Raul Jiménez?

How was Fort Worth’s millionaire Thanksgiving host dismissed in his 1998 obituary as “owner of a now-defunct restaurant”?

How did we forget the 50,000 Thanksgiving dinners Jiménez gave away here in 20 years? Or the 750,000 he and his family have served in his home city of San Antonio?

How can forget the first restaurateur in Dallas-Fort Worth to offer grilled steak strips called fajitas?

How can we forget Texas’ own little Horatio Alger story, about a little Dallas barrio teenager who went from rags to riches and gave away hundreds of thousands of dollars — before a recession returned him to rags?

Granted, Jiménez is more closely identified with San Antonio, where he opened his first chorizo factory in 1954.

That grew to a $25 million north Fort Worth food empire selling Jiménez brand salsa, tamales, tortillas and taco shells in 11 states.

The fortune lifted Jiménez, an eighth-grade dropout, to fame as “the Mexican Gourmet” and also to prominence as one of Texas’ most powerful Democrats, a business conservative who headed Gov. Dolph Briscoe’s 1978 re-election campaign.

In 1973, when his home base was still in a tiny north Fort Worth restaurant on West Central Avenue, he told his wife, Mary, to plan for company on Thanksgiving.

She asked how many friends.

“Just a few,” he said.

That year, they served free turkey-and-dressing dinners to 200 senior citizens and children.

In a Star-Telegram interview the next year, he said the dinners were “one way that I can show I’m thankful for the good things that have happened to me and my family.”

The Tarrant County Commissioners Court named him the community’s “Outstanding Citizen.” Reporters gave him a humanitarian award.

In 1974, he founded an adult night school next door to the restaurant, still standing but long boarded up after a 1992 fire.

In 1976, Briscoe said Jiménez’s life “helps to reaffirm our faith in our fellow man.”

The great San Antonio columnist Carlos Guerra wrote that Jiménez “taught us, through example, about the might of an individual intent on doing right.”

Nearly 20 years after Jiménez’s death, 25,000 guests remember the generous restaurateur each year with four tons of turkey in the San Antonio convention center.

We miss the Jiménez dinners in Fort Worth.

I don’t know anywhere else for lonely older folks to go for turkey, pumpkin pie, a fiddle band and the chance to make new friends.

Jiménez’s son, the late Raul Jr., used to tell about a couple that sat down to chat at one of the Fort Worth dinners, originally in the restaurant and later in the Amon G. Carter Jr. Exhibits Hall.

It took them several bites of cornbread dressing and giblet gravy to figure out that they had already been married and divorced 40 years earlier.

“We wanted to make sure the senior citizens had someplace to go on Thanksgiving,” Mary Jiménez said in 2006.

“So many of our older customers, they didn’t have any family, or their children didn’t come see them,” she said.

Some saved their best clothes for the holiday dinner.

Mary Jiménez said it was “our way to give thanks for the way the good Lord has blessed us.”

“He loved the people in Fort Worth,” said Mary Jiménez. “He didn’t want anybody to be turned away.”

At those early dinners, their tiny daughter, Patricia, helped slice the pumpkin pies.

Now, Patricia Jiménez chairs the charity event in San Antonio.

“I don’t know any other way to spend Thanksgiving,” she said in 2006 as workers emptied Wal-Mart trailers full of donated Butterball turkeys and sorted yams collected from fans at San Antonio Spurs basketball games.

“I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I had to spend the day at home.”

She has lived most of her life in San Antonio and barely remembers the dinners in Fort Worth.

“I believe in my father’s vision,” she said. “To spend Thanksgiving here, with senior citizens who don’t have the family or resources for their own dinner — that brings me closer to my father.”

Other local restaurateurs, notably the late Vance Godbey, continued the Jiménez dinners in Fort Worth for a few years after 1991. But they eventually ended, partially because they had become such big, expensive events.

In a 1974 profile, Jiménez expressed embarrassment about his wealth.

“It’s not important how much [money] I made,” he said.

“What is important is that my success has come because I was willing to work for it. I tell other people that if they will work, they can do just about anything they want.”

And feed thousands every Thanksgiving.

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Columnist Bud Kennedy is a Fort Worth guy who covered high school football at 16 and has moved on to two Super Bowls, seven political conventions and 16 Texas Legislature sessions. First on the scene of a 1988 DFW Airport crash, he interviewed passengers running from the burning plane. He made his first appearance in the paper before he was born: He was sold for $600 in the adoption classifieds.